Milk has come in carton boxes for ages, but water has not been available in cartons until very recently and only at limited locations. What are the pros and cons of using carton boxes for water instead of plastic bottles? Although the paths for recycling must be quite different from each other, in the end paper is much more biodegradable than plastic. Shipping long distances in carton boxes may be challenging since the plastic bottles might be more durable, but then again there is the question of how long your water in plastic water been exposed to direct sunlight and overheating during that longer period of shelf life?

So what are the challenges that keep us from switching to using carton boxes instead of plastic bottles for water?

  • 3
    Alternative: drink tap water (possibly filtered if you live in an area where it's heavily chlorinated)
    – gerrit
    Mar 12, 2014 at 13:23
  • @gerrit No doubt. I use a reusable bottle with filtered tap water too. However, bottled water is still a very common alternative for people outdoors. I don't know, maybe they don't like carrying a bottle???
    – ZZZ
    Mar 12, 2014 at 14:14
  • Might be helpful to first ask whether (plastic) bottles or various types of cartons are more sustainable.
    – Móż
    Mar 13, 2014 at 0:01
  • 1
    How does exposure to sunlight negatively affect bottled water in a way that won't affect carton water?
    – Móż
    Mar 13, 2014 at 7:54
  • Still thinking about a good answer to that question. I guess the plastic bottle is transparent and lets heating by radiation from direct sun light in addition to the convection from the skin of the bottle? Anybody with a better knowledge on this might chip in to clear this for us maybe...
    – ZZZ
    Mar 13, 2014 at 19:16

3 Answers 3



  1. Recycling the cartons. Even Milk doesn't do that.

    "Milk cartons are heavily waxed. This makes them difficult if not impossible to recycle." Correction: Milk cartons are a layer of low density polyethylene on both faces of cardboard.

  2. Overcoming the costs of two way transport for the carton containers.

    Milk is shipped in cartons which in turn are in plastic crates. The crates make the round trip. Milk is usually not tranported long distances.

    Water bottles are on cardboard flats, shrink wrapped with more plastic. Most of them end up in the land fill. A water truck goes the other way with a new cargo.

  3. Overcoming the bad press of replacing a bad packaging system with one even less sustainable.

This article http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2011/03/disoriented_in_the_dairy_aisle.html

points out that a plastic milk jug is 4 oz, a cardboard carton is 5 oz. The plastic is an easier recycle.

Glass is your best option. Apparently even with the high energy cost of fusing silica and lime into glass, it's still about half the energy cost of either plastic or cardboard. But it may be as much as 1/3 of the shipping weight. Slate's article claimed that over the life of a milk bottle the energy cost was about 1/2 of the other two.

Now Slate's article was about milk -- much better re-use rate generally.

At one point you could get 'bag' milk. 1 liter in a polyethylene bag. This was the most sustainable one-way packaging possible. A small amount of PE. PE is one of the most recycleable plastics. The current use of PE milk jugs is close behind, and is certainly better than cardboard cartons.

There is a case to be made for glass bottles. With milk especially, as the crates go back anyway, and washing bottles on a large scale works quite well.

Putting water in containers is where the non-sustainability starts. Why should water cost more than gasoline?

  • My local recycling agency accepts waxed paper milk cartons for recycling, and they also accept them as compostable. (I don't know if they actually do recycle them, or if they just divert them to compost).
    – Johnny
    Mar 16, 2014 at 20:29
  • My bad. I will go back and correct. Milk cartons are recycleable. And they aren't waxed, but instead it's a film of plastic. Mar 17, 2014 at 21:49
  • As a matter of fact, you can still buy 'bag' milk, at least here in Switzerland: migipedia.ch/de/lebensmittel/milchprodukte-und-eier/…
    – drat
    Mar 18, 2014 at 8:11

I remember Paper milk carton in 1 gal. My mom would bring it home and pore it in to a 1 gal jar then she would rise out the carton fill it with water an freeze for ice. Yes glass is heaver but is much easyer to recyle and much more earth friendly and heathly. V.L. Snyder Age 65


Sealing a cardboard box for use as a beverage container where the box needs to be repeatedly opened and closed, without the use of a plastic screw top lid is a significant challenge. I have seen 1 liter Tetra Pak cartons with a plastic screw lid used for milk and fruit juice. They can easily be adapted to carry water.

  • The screw top on cartons is a recent invention. The older method of sealing them through clever folding of the top has superior usability, though it doesn't seal as well.
    – Mark
    Aug 18, 2023 at 3:05

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